Saturday, November 22, 2014

John F. Kennedy: His Assassination, November 22, 1963



In a brief discussion with students in one of my classes last week, I learned that many could not place the date of John Kennedy's assassination. On the anniversary of his assassination here's a film that can serve as a review, or an introduction to it:





This biography of John F. Kennedy is taken from the official White House government website.  You can also find links to biographies of all 44 presidents at this page.  The History Channel has a report on the day of the assassination. CBS presents photographs of the day.


On November 22, 1963, when he was hardly past his first thousand days in office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullets as his motorcade wound through Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was the youngest man elected President; he was the youngest to die.

Of Irish descent, [Kennedy] was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917. Graduating from Harvard in 1940, he entered the Navy. In 1943, when his PT boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy, despite grave injuries, led the survivors through perilous waters to safety.
Back from the war, he became a Democratic Congressman from the Boston area, advancing in 1953 to the Senate. He married Jacqueline Bouvier on September 12, 1953. In 1955, while recuperating from a back operation, he wrote Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize in history.
In 1956 Kennedy almost gained the Democratic nomination for Vice President, and four years later was a first-ballot nominee for President. Millions watched his television debates with the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon. Winning by a narrow margin in the popular vote, Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic President.
His Inaugural Address offered the memorable injunction: "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." As President, he set out to redeem his campaign pledge to get America moving again. His economic programs launched the country on its longest sustained expansion since World War II; before his death, he laid plans for a massive assault on persisting pockets of privation and poverty.
Responding to ever more urgent demands, he took vigorous action in the cause of equal rights, calling for new civil rights legislation. His vision of America extended to the quality of the national culture and the central role of the arts in a vital society.
He wished America to resume its old mission as the first nation dedicated to the revolution of human rights. With the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, he brought American idealism to the aid of developing nations. But the hard reality of the Communist challenge remained.
Shortly after his inauguration, Kennedy permitted a band of Cuban exiles, already armed and trained, to invade their homeland. The attempt to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro was a failure. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union renewed its campaign against West Berlin. Kennedy replied by reinforcing the Berlin garrison and increasing the Nation's military strength, including new efforts in outer space. Confronted by this reaction, Moscow, after the erection of the Berlin Wall, relaxed its pressure in central Europe.
Instead, the Russians now sought to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. When this was discovered by air reconnaissance in October 1962, Kennedy imposed a quarantine on all offensive weapons bound for Cuba. While the world trembled on the brink of nuclear war, the Russians backed down and agreed to take the missiles away. The American response to the Cuban crisis evidently persuaded Moscow of the futility of nuclear blackmail.
Kennedy now contended that both sides had a vital interest in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and slowing the arms race--a contention which led to the test ban treaty of 1963. The months after the Cuban crisis showed significant progress toward his goal of "a world of law and free choice, banishing the world of war and coercion." His administration thus saw the beginning of new hope for both the equal rights of Americans and the peace of the world.
The Presidential biographies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The Presidents of the United States of America,” by Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey. Copyright 2006 by the White House Historical Association.
This collage remembers the four major
political assassinations in the United States during the 1960s. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

1A & 1B: Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Hemingway Passport Photo, 1923


The New York Times has posted their extensive collection of Ernest Hemingway articles. You'll find links to his life story, book reviews, author commentaries, interviews and audio recordings.

Here's the first paragraph of a July 11, 1999 article summarizing his life:

Hemingway in Our Times

By MICHAEL REYNOLDS
 
On October 18, 1925, an American writer, not yet turned twenty-six, was first reviewed in The New York Times, whose anonymous critic called his short stories "lean, pleasing, with tough resilience," "fibrous," "athletic," "fresh," "hard," and "clean," almost as if an athlete, not a book, was being reviewed. Hemingway had that effect on reviewers and readers alike. His prose style was dramatically different, demanding equally new ways of describing it. Not more than a handful of the newspaper's readers likely knew the Hemingway name, but the review of "In Our Time" could not have been more propitious.

The above article continues here.

PBS American Masters presents a timeline of Hemingway's life. Another PBS page, this one for Michael Palin's "Hemingway Adventures," is a great place to start to learn about Hemingway. Palin, a formerly of the English comedy group, Monty Python, can be seen here on his "Hemingway Adventures," or search Michael Palin and Hemingway at YouTube

Hemingway was interviewed by the Paris Review for its Spring 1958 issue.  Conducted by editor George Plimpton, Hemingway talks about his writing methods and theories.  

Hemingway wrote often about war. Read "Hemingway on War and Its Aftermath" for a good overview of the topic.  You can find it here.


The copy of In Our Time, above, reports bookseller The Manhattan Rare Book Company, "is a FIRST EDITION, one of only 170 numbered copies, printed on Rives hand-made paper, of Hemingway's second book. With woodcut portrait  frontispiece after Henry Strater."

Published in "Paris [by]: Three Mountains Press, 1924. Tall octavo, original publisher's decorated tan paper boards; custom cloth box. Bookplate on front pastedown. A few spots of rubbing to spine, one corner lightly bumped; boards a little bowed; usual discoloration to endpapers. A very nice copy. $36,500."

It gets better.  As of October 8, 2014, Abe Books was listing a first edition copy of In Our Time for $75,000. 

Yes,  you read that right.  It is not a typo.  $75,000.  The lesson: don't sell your books back to the bookstore.  Unless they are giving you a very good price.

Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn

HBO premiered Hemingway and Gellhorn, with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, on May 28th, 2012. (It was not a hit with the critics.) Hemingway and Gellhorn met in 1936 and were married from 1940-45.  Gellhorn was a distinguished writer and among the most  important correspondents of the 20th Century, reporting on the Spanish Civil War (alongside Hemingway), the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, and the Vietnam and the Arab-Israeli wars.  Here's the trailer for the film:











Hemingway's Literary and Artistic Influences

James Joyce
from The New York Times, July 6, 1961, Ernest Hemingway speaks of James Joyce, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century:

"Hemingway was quick to see the merit in the work of James Joyce. . . . In a letter to Sherwood Anderson dated March 9, 1922, Hemingway wrote:

"'Joyce has written a most goddam wonderful book (Ulysses) * * *. Meantime the report is that he and all his family are starving, but you can find the whole Celtic crew of them in Michaud,' (then a moderately expensive Paris eating place).

"Nevertheless, on several occasions Hemingway contributed to the funds raised to aid Joyce, with whom he did a considerable amount of stout drinking in Paris. When Joyce's "Ulysses" was pirated in the United States Hemingway was one of the organizers of the protest which bore the names of many of the most distinguished figures in world literature."

You can read James Joyce's Ulysses here.  It was published in 1922 to much acclaim and controversy.  Regarding the latter, some thought it to be a "dirty book."  Finnegans Wake, a novel that Joyce worked on from 1922 until its publication in 1939, is far more experimental.  Read it here.

"Portrait of Gertrude Stein"
 by Picasso (1906)

Hemingway was influenced by many writers and artists early in his career, among them Gertrude Stein, who was known for her literary and artistic salon in Paris after World War I.  Dennis Ryan examines Stein's influence on Hemingway's early career--she critiqued his prose--in his article "Dating Hemingway's Early Style/Parsing Gertrude Stein's Modernism".  Stein was a fierce experimentalist, and you can read a sample of her work here.

Hemingway wrote about his time in Paris in his nonfiction account, A Moveable Feast.  Alfred Kazin's essay, "Hemingway as his Own Fable," from The Atlantic, June 1964, reviews Hemingway's book and offers some insight to his autobiographical impulses as seen in his prose.
Cezanne's "Mont Sainte-Victoire
 Seen from Les Lauves" (1904-06)
 
Artists like Paul Cezanne were also important models for Hemingway, who claimed that he made repeated visits to museum galleries to see how the post-Impressionist captured the landscape. While in Paris during the 1920s, Hemingway also came to know Pablo Picasso and would later make a film about The Spanish Civil War, the subject of Picasso's famous "Guernica".



Picasso's "Guernica" (1937)
 portrays the destruction of Guernica, Spain
 by German and Italian bombers during the Spanish Civil War

Hemingway filming The Spanish Earth (1937),
the story of Spain's Republican resistance
 of fascist Gen. Francisco Franco,
 who had the support of Nazi Germany and Italy.
Written with John Dos Passos,
 Hemingway also served as the film's narrator.




The Spanish Earth is a 55 minute film. You can watch it above.

The "real" Hemingway, as he is presented
 in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."

More "real" Hemingway
 from "Midnight in Paris."



There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

--Ernest Hemingway







Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wriers on Writing: Phillip Lopate (The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt)

The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt


The New York Times, February 16, 2013

By Philip Lopate




Draft
Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.
I am an essayist, for better or worse. I don’t suppose many young people dream of becoming essayists. Even as nerdy and bookish a child as I was fantasized about entering the lists of fiction and poetry, those more glamorous, noble genres on which Nobels, Pulitzers and National Book Awards are annually bestowed. So if Freud was right in saying that we can be truly happy only when our childhood ambitions are fulfilled, then I must be content to be merely content.
I like the freedom that comes with lowered expectations. In the area of literary nonfiction, memoirs attract much more attention than essay collections, which are published in a modest, quasi-invisible manner, in keeping with anticipated lower sales. But despite periodic warnings of the essay’s demise, the stuff does continue to be published; if anything, the essay has experienced a slight resurgence of late. I wonder if that may be because it is attuned to the current mood, speaks to the present moment. At bottom, we are deeply unsure and divided, and the essay feasts on doubt.
Ever since Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the modern essay, gave as a motto his befuddled “What do I know?” and put forth a vision of humanity as mentally wavering and inconstant, the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.
According to Theodor Adorno, the iron law of the essay is heresy. What is heresy if not the expression of contrarian doubt about communal pieties or orthodox positions? This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” an ostensible goal of education in a democracy. But since such thinking often rocks the boat, we may find it less than supported in school settings. Typically, the exercise of doubt is something an individual has to cultivate on his or her own, in private, before summoning the courage to air it, say, in an essay.
Alexander Glandien
Recently, with fiercely increased competition for admission to the better colleges, the “common app” essay has become an obsessive focus on the part of high school administrators, parents and students. This part of the college application requires each applicant to file a personal statement, a prose reflection conveying individual sensibility, experience or worldview.
Tutors advertise on lampposts for after-school courses to prep the college aspirant for the most seductive, winning common app. (I am delighted to see this career path opening for indigent essayists.) The problem is that, more often than not, the applicant is expected to put forward a confident presentation of self that is more like an advertisement, a smooth civic-minded con job, circumventing the essay’s gift for candid, robust self-doubt.
When my daughter Lily, now a college freshman, was applying to schools, she wrote what I thought was a perfect common app essay about her mixed attraction to the idea of melancholy. Her high school counselor, while conceding it was well written, forced her to abandon it because it might give schools the wrong impression that she was a “downer.” Earlier, Lily, whom I had encouraged to wear her ambivalence proudly, was reproved by teachers for writing papers that failed to support one side of a debate, instead arguing the validity of both positions.
I got it that they wanted her to sharpen her rhetorical ability. Argumentation is a good skill to have, but the real argument should be with oneself. Especially when it comes to the development of young writers, it is crucial to nudge them past that self-righteous inveighing, that shrill, defensive one-track that is deadly for personal essays or memoirs, and encourage a more polyphonic, playful approach. That may be why a classic essay technique is to stage an inner debate by thinking against oneself.
Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side. Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself. My mind is filled with “yes, buts,” “so whats?” and other skeptical rejoinders. I am forever monitoring myself for traces of folly, insensitivity, arrogance, false humility, cruelty, stupidity, immaturity and, guess what, I keep finding examples. Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect. My wife sometimes complains that I will never admit I am wrong. Of course I do — granted, less than I should, but it’s not just because I am stubborn and hate to concede a point in the heat of argument. The main reason is that a part of me always assumes I’m wrong and at fault, to some extent; this is so obvious to me that it needn’t bear stating. In any case, I often forget to say it aloud. But I certainly think it.
Strangely enough, doubt need not impede action. If you really become friends with your doubt, you can go ahead and take risks, knowing you will be questioning yourself at every turn, no matter what. It is part of living, a healthy evolutionary adaptation, I would imagine. The mistake is in trying to tune out your doubts. Accept them as a necessary (or at least unavoidable) soundtrack.
The only danger, then, is becoming smug about one’s capacity for doubt — the essayist’s occupational hazard, to which I periodically succumb. I have found the exercise of doubt to be an enormous help in writing essays, because it lets me start out with the knowledge that I may very well not achieve perfection on the page. Then I can forgive myself in advance for falling short of the mark, and get on with it.

Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate, who directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of “Portrait Inside My Head” and “To Show and to Tell.”
You can also find this essay at this site for The New York Times.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

English 9 CREATIVE NONFICTION Spring 2015


I want to tell you about a class I'm teaching in Spring 2015.  It's English 9, Creative Nonfiction. It's a writing class. We'll meet Monday and Wednesday, 10:30 AM--11:55 AM.

Creative Nonfiction, sometimes called Literary Journalism, is a blend of writing styles we usually attribute to fiction and journalism. It is storytelling with facts.

Students will write profiles of people and places, and a memoir, and read Best American Essays, 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, and Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard.

If you have questions about it, let me know.

1B: Raymond Carver (1938-1988)

Raymond Carver (1938-88) said in a 1977 interview,
 “I am beginning to feel like a cigarette with a body attached to it.”
Photograph by Bob Adelman, Syracuse, New York, 1984.

"A writer ought to speak about things that are important to him. . . . I tend to go back to the time and the people I knew well when I was younger and who made a very strong impression on me . . . . most of the people in my stories are poor and bewildered, that's true. The economy, that's important . . . I don't feel I'm a political writer and yet I've been attacked by right-wing critics in the U.S.A. who blame me for not painting a more smiling picture of America, for not being optimistic enough, for writing stories about the people who don't succeed. But these lives are as valid as those of the go-getters. Yes, I take unemployment, money problems, and marital problems as givens in life. People worry about their rent, their children, their home life. That's basic. That's how 80-90 percent, or God knows how many people live. I write stories about a submerged population, people who don't always have someone to speak for them. I'm sort of a witness, and, besides, that's the life I myself lived for a long time. I don't see myself as a spokesman but as a witness to these lives. I'm a writer."
--Raymond Carver

The above remarks by Carver were taken from an interview he did in spring 1987. For the complete text of this interview and one other with Carver, view this link.


Things to do when you're reading Carver







One:  [Recommended.] Watch the videos, above, about Carver.
Two: [Recommended.] Read the Carver pages at the Poetry Foundation.
Three: [Recommended.Read Carver's interview with the Paris Review, from Summer 1983.
Four: [Recommended]:  Read articles, take your pick, on Carver that are linked at The New York Times.
Five: [Recommended]: Visit The New Yorker's Raymond Carver page.  The magazine has published many of Carver's stories and remembrances of him over the years.
The New Yorker has been in the process of redesigning its Carver pages.  The following links may or may not work:
The draft of the story, "Beginners," which became "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," can be found  here. The Gordon Lish edited version--"Beginners," heavily edited might now be found at The New Yorker site. [Unfortunately, The New Yorker has either removed the edited version, or moved it. However, there is a brief sample here. ].  Lish's edits are an excellent example of the dynamics, or call it the conflict, that exist between writer and editor. See a discussion of Carver's July 8, 1980 letter to Lish, protesting recent editorial cuts (some as much as 70%) of his collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Letters from Carver to Lish, including the July 8, 1980 Carver letter to Lish, can be found here. Now that you are an expert on "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," I invite you to read "What We Talk About When We Talk About Doughnuts," from The New Yorker,  May 10, 1999.





Raymond Carver, Summer 1969. Photograph by Gordon Lish

Six: The Library of America publishes, as they say, "Authoritative texts of great American writing." They have a page on Carver. They also made a statement on Gordon Lish's editing of "Beginners"/"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" and a letter, a tortured letter, by Carver with a plea to Lish to return the story more closely to the original. The Library of America's statement and Carver's letter appears here.
Seven:  Thanks to Andy Ngo of English 1B, here's "The Bath" in PDF. If this link is broken, find "The Bath" at this site.
Eight: Find an early version of "So Much Water So Close to Home" right here. Please note, however, that this version incorrectly includes a question mark ("?") at the end of the story; it should end with a period.

Redesign of Raymond Carver book covers by Todd Hido

Nine: Carver's stories have inspired a number of films.  They include  Short Cuts by Robert Altman (and a cast of dozens, at least).  Go here to read an interview with filmmaker Altman and poet Tess Gallagher, Carver's widow. Here's Roger Ebert's review of Short Cuts. A list of other Carver-inspired films can be found at IMDB.
Ten: Want to learn more about Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish? Read this from The New York Review of Books.   Thanks to former English 1B student Oshin Edralin, we have a YouTube video to watch about Lish and Carver. Here it is:



Eleven: [Recommended]:  For poetry by Carver go to this site at the Poetry Foundation and click the tab for "Poems, Articles and More." Poetry Soup has a pretty good sample of his poetry, too, as does All Poetry.


Carver described, in a Paris Review interview from the Summer 1983 issue, his writing process and the hard but pleasurable work involved in doing revisions: 

"Much of this work time, understand, is given over to revising and rewriting. There's not much that I like better than to take a story that I've had around the house for a while and work it over again. It's the same with the poems I write. I'm in no hurry to send something off just after I write it, and I sometimes keep it around the house for months doing this or that to it, taking this out and putting that in. It doesn't take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I've done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts."

For The Paris Review's complete interview with Carver, visit this page.

Group work at its finest? Or a staged photo op? From left to right, clockwise: Kary, Elizabeth, Elia, 
Nancy, Sara, and Stephanie, take on Carver's "Fever" at Shatford Library. (June 1, 2011.)

The Carver Gang discussing "What We Talk About When We Talk About Caffeine."
Clockwise, left to right: Stephanie, Tina, Sara, Kary, Brian, Some Guy, Kim and Nancy. June 8, 2011.

In the Paris Review interview, published in the Summer 1983 issue, Carver also discussed the purpose and pleasure of fiction:

"The days are gone, if they were ever with us, when a novel or a play or a book of poems could change people's ideas about the world they live in or even about themselves. Maybe writing fiction about particular kinds of people living particular kinds of lives will allow certain areas of life to be understood a little better than they were understood before. But I'm afraid that's it, at least as far as I'm concerned. Perhaps it's different in poetry. . . . Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another. That end is good in and of itself, I think. But changing things through fiction, changing somebody's political affiliation or the political system itself, or saving the whales or the redwood trees, no. Not if these are the kinds of changes you mean. And I don't think it should have to do any of these things, either. It doesn't have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that's taken in reading something that's durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim."

For The Paris Review's complete interview with Carver, visit this page.

"I'm not a 'born' poet. I don't know if I'm a 'born' anything except a white American male,Carver said of himself in the Paris Review interview from the Summer 1983 issue. Photograph by Marion Ettlinger for Carver's 1985 poetry collection, Where Water Comes Together With Other Water.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

PCC THEATRE IN LONDON 
Spring Break: March 7-15, 2015


Join Professors Manny Perea and Brian Adler for an exciting week of theatre and sightseeing in London.
You’ll enjoy: 
Four plays
Round-trip flight on Virgin Atlantic
Round-trip airport transportation in London
7 nights at the 4-star Holiday Inn Bloomsbury
Daily Continental Breakfast
Day trip to the historic town of Bath
A tour of the National Theatre in London
Seven-day transportation pass for London tube/bus
And free time to explore London and its environs at your own pace 

Imagine... the British Museum, the British Library, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Covent Garden, Harrods, pubs, and fabulous food and shopping!

ALL THIS FOR $3,380!

Accommodations based on double occupancy. Single supplement: $850
Price excludes PCC course fees. Deposit due: December 5, 2014

INFORMATION MEETINGS

Thursday, November 13: 12 noon in C304 and 6 p.m. in C163

Please spread the word. Tell your family and friends! Any and all can come on this trip.

To learn more, please contact Professor Perea (626-585-7496; email: mxperea@pasadena.edu) or Professor Adler (626-585-7643; email: bradler@pasadena.edu)



Thursday, October 30, 2014

Harvard Prof. of Physics: Just Ask. Then Keep Asking

The New York Times, September 14, 2011

Just Ask. Then Keep Asking.

By LISA RANDALL, professor of physics, Harvard University and author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door"


I was shy the way many geeky girls can be. Professors hardly noticed that they rarely answered girls’ questions before some boy who didn’t actually know the answer interrupted. But a professor who later became my adviser gave me the best advice I ever received, which was to not be afraid to speak up and ask questions. Suddenly teachers were speaking directly to me, and my questions were usually good enough that I could detect the relief of other students who actually had the same ones, reassuring me I was doing the right thing. Now, as a professor, I know not to see classes as passive experiences. The occasional interruption keeps people engaged and illuminates subtle points, and in research even leads to new research directions. Just participating and questioning makes your mind work better. Don’t you agree?


In the same article, "The Educational Experiences That Change a Life," others recall pivotal moments in their learning.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

1B: Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)




Want to learn more about Flannery O'Connor?  Who doesn't? Check out some of these websites devoted to her: Perspectives in American Literature, and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

One of the most extensive websites concerning O'Connor is Comforts of Home: The Flannery O'Connor Repository.  There you will find links to online publications about O'Connor, study guides and biographical information. The New York Times also has a page on O'Connor.  Find an Atlantic magazine review of Brad Gooch's biography of O'Connor, Flanneryhere. More information about O'Connor's life and her writing is forthcoming because of Emory University's  acquisition of her letters, drafts, and journals. These materials will be available to the public.


O'Connor's self-portrait from 1953.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
O'CONNOR and art 
from The Paris Review
Flannery O'Connor and the Habit of Art
April 30, 2012 | by Kelly Gerald

"'For the writer of fiction,' Flannery O’Connor once said, 'everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.' This way of seeing she described as part of the 'habit of art,' a concept borrowed from the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. She used the expression to explain the way of seeing that the artist must cultivate, one that does not separate meaning from experience.


The sketches reproduced here are from Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons,
 work that she did in high school and college. 

"The visual arts became one of her favorite touchstones for explaining this process. Many disciplines could help your writing, she said, but especially drawing: 'Anything that helps you to see. Anything that makes you look.' Why was this emphasis on seeing and vision so important to her in explaining how fiction works? Because she came to writing from a background in the visual arts, where everything the artist communicates is apprehended, first, by the eye.



"She had developed the habits of the artist, that way of seeing and observing and representing the world around her, from years of working as a cartoonist. She discovered for herself the nuances of practicing her craft in a medium that involved communicating with images and experimenting with the physical expressions of the body in carefully choreographed arrangements. Her natural proclivity for capturing the humorous character of real people and concrete situations, two rudimentary elements she later asserted form the genesis of any story, found expression in her prolific drawings and cartoons long before she began her career as a fiction writer.



"Beginning at about age five, O’Connor drew and made cartoons, created small books, and wrote stories and comical sketches, often accompanied by her own illustrations. Although her interest in writing was equally evident, by the time she reached high school her abilities as a cartoonist had moved to the forefront. After her first cartoon was published in the fall of 1940, her work appeared in nearly every issue of her high-school and college newspapers, as well as yearbooks—roughly a hundred between 1940 and 1945—and most of these were produced from linoleum block cuts. When she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville in 1945, she was a celebrated local cartoonist preparing for a career in journalism that would, she hoped, combine work as a professional writer and cartoonist."

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: read the remainder of this essay.


O'CONNOR'S influence:
O'Connor is important to many writers, so they frequently mention her in their interviews and essays, T.C. Boyle among them. Here is what he had to say about her: 

"[L]et us not forget Flannery O'Connor. I discovered her as an undergraduate (for an adjective-rich description of your not-so-humble narrator at the time, see above). I was in a literature class--the Contemporary Short Story or some such. And she, the most remarkable American writer of the '50s, was where she so assuredly deserved to be--enshrined in a fat anthology. The story was 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,' and it remains my favorite of all time, though certain pieces by the Three Cs (Cheever, Carver, and Coover) give it a run for the money. This story seems to me perfect in its radical synthesis of the horrific and the hilarious. I've read it a hundred times and I still laugh aloud at the scheming and senile grandmother, the howling brats, and the henpecked Bailey, and find the scene in which the grandmother's cat (Pitty Sing) attaches itself to the back of Bailey's neck, thus fomenting the accident, both chilling and (yes) wickedly funny. What ensues is a morality play that chills me right down to the black pit of my black heart. Accident rules the world, accident and depravity, and I don't have O'Connor's faith to save me from all that." (source: Reinhard Donat's webpage.)

O'Connor's notebooks. Photograph by Dustin Chambers for The New York Times

"Now I am perfectly willing to believe Flannery O’Connor when she said, and she wasn’t kidding, that the modern world is a territory largely occupied by the devil. No one doubts the malevolence abroad in the world. But the world is also deranged. . . . the novelist is entitled to a degree of artifice and cunning, as Joyce said; or the 'indirect method,' as Kierkegaard said; or the comic-bizarre for shock therapy, as Flannery O’Connor did." 
-- Walker Percy

"Flannery O’Connor was probably the biggest influence in my mature writing life. I didn’t discover her until I was at Arkansas, and I didn’t read her until I was around twenty-five, twenty-six. She was so powerful, she just knocked me down. I still read Flannery and teach her. . . . [I read] “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and then I read everything. . . . I thought the author was a guy. I thought it was a guy for three years until someone clued me in very quietly at Arkansas. “It’s a woman, Barry.” Her work is so mean. The women are treated so harshly. The misogyny and religion. It was so foreign and Southern to me. She certainly was amazing."
-- Barry Hannah

"I take comfort in the way that, say, Flannery O’Connor would tend to revisit the same situations without losing much in the way of her power or variety. You know, you have the surly daughter who is driven nuts by her mother’s cheer and simplistic piety and common sense, and a shiftless handyman around somewhere. There are recurring patterns in her work, but she manages to refresh them each time out. I suppose I hope to achieve something like that. . . . But to get back to Flannery O’Connor, what kind of experience did she have, afterall? She spent, what, one year away from her farm in Milledgeville? Yet her stories are full of life and drama and real humanity, and it’s because she kept her eyes open."
-- Tobias Wolfe

Bruce Springsteen was asked by The New York Times Book Review, October 30, 2014: "If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

"One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us."
-- Bruce Springsteen

"A writer like Flannery O’Connor, in stories like 'Good Country People' or 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find,' can not only make you laugh aloud, but make you cringe too. And make you think. To engage your humor and your emotions, that’s quite a trick. I’d like to think that I’m able to do that, to keep the reader off balance—is this the universe of the comedy or the tragedy? or some unsettling admixture of the two?—to go beyond mere satire into something more emotionally devastating, and gratifying. If that ain’t art, I don’t know what is."
-- T. Coraghessan Boyle



"My Dear God: A young writer’s prayers" by O'Connor was published in The New YorkerSeptember 16, 2013. The magazine introduces O'Connor's words by saying, how these "excerpts from her journal chart her thoughts on the subject of faith and prayer, and her hopes for her fiction."

A review of O'Connor's A Prayer Journal can also be found at NPR. Listen to or read the transcript of the November 20, 2013 broadcast here. 


Now for some words from O'Connor herself.  I invite you to read her address "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" from 1960. There is also an audio clip of O'Connor reading it aloud here. It is in this address that O'Connor says the following: "The social sciences have cast a dreary blight on the public approach to fiction. When I first began to write, my own particular bête noire was that mythical entity, The School of Southern Degeneracy. Every time I heard about The School of Southern Degeneracy, I felt like Br'er Rabbit stuck on the Tarbaby. There was a time when the average reader read a novel simply for the moral he could get out of it, and however naive that may have been, it was a good deal less naive than some of the more limited objectives he now has. Today novels are considered to be entirely concerned with the social or economic or, psychological forces that they will by necessity exhibit, or with those details of daily life that are for the good novelist only means to some deeper end."

When you get a chance, read her story "Good Country People". Funny, dark, tragic and wise: all the things another great O'Connor story delivers.


Milledgeville, GA is the town where O'Connor grew up and returned to as an adult.
 It also serves as the inspiration and landscape for many of her stories.   
A writer for The New York Times visited O'Connor's Georgia and shares his observations of what he found:

"THE sun was white above the trees, and sinking fast. I was a few miles past Milledgeville, Ga., somewhere outside of Toomsboro, on a two-lane highway that rose and plunged and twisted through red clay hills and pine woods. . . . Somewhere outside Toomsboro is where, in O'Connor's best-known short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a family has a car accident and a tiresome old grandmother has an epiphany.


"O'Connor's short stories and novels are set in a rural South where people know their places, mind their manners and do horrible things to one another. It's a place that somehow hovers outside of time, where both the New Deal and the New Testament feel like recent history. It's soaked in violence and humor, in sin and in God. He may have fled the modern world, but in O'Connor's he sticks around, in the sun hanging over the tree line, in the trees and farm beasts, and in the characters who roost in the memory like gargoyles. It's a land haunted by Christ — not your friendly hug-me Jesus, but a ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind, pursuing the unwilling."


from "In Search of Flannery O'Connor" by Lawrence Downes, The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2007.


You can also listen to O'Connor read "A Good Man is Hard to Find." It was recorded in 1959 at Vanderbilt University. Note how O'Connor's reading draws attention to the story's humor.

O'Connor loved birds, keeping many species on her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.
   She was especially fond of  "the king of birds," the peacock, pictured with her, above.